Friday, February 25, 2022

Recipe for Courage: One Part HOPE; One Part FREEDOM; and One Part Mercy--Blend Well

 


“A Recipe for Courage: One Part Hope; One Part Freedom; One Part Mercy—Blend Well”

 

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
3:12 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness,

3:13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.

3:14 But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside.

3:15 Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds;

3:16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.

3:17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

3:18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

4:1 Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

4:2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

 

In a time when the very foundations of human society seem to be quaking, the Christian believer seeks some sense of surety, or an anchor to keep from just vibrating away like a poorly-built edifice in an earthquake. At the very least, we look for courage or boldness to “stand firm,” to use Paul’s language, and the fortitude to speak out, when necessary. Our witness is more effective when it comes from a strong place—not necessarily a strong view or opinion, but a strength of inner character, of Spirit, of faith. In today’s message, we’ll look at a collection of scripture verses wherein the Apostle Paul seems to be offering a “recipe” for this courage.

 

A disclaimer: I’m using “cooking” terms because this is one of my retirement or “bucket list” pursuits. I never learned to cook anything beyond what one can pull from the freezer and heat up in the oven or zap in the Radar Range (threw that reference in just to see how many of you reading this are of my vintage; do you remember this as Amana’s famous moniker slapped on the massive, loud, and even dangerous “first editions” of the domestic microwave oven?). Of course, this leads to a rabbit hole of a story…

 

Early in my ministry, I would take an annual week-long retreat to Olmsted Manor, our United Methodist adult retreat center in remote Ludlow, near Kane, PA. Often I would be on my own for meals during that week, as there was often no other group staying during the “work week.” On my way up, I would stop by a grocery store in Kane and pick up my supplies for the week—remember, I don’t cook, so they were all “processed” meals. The first time I took this retreat, I picked up some “microwave popcorn” that had really just come on the market, since the device that cooked them was still pretty novel. When I arrived at Olmsted, I found the light switch for the kitchen, and hunted up the microwave oven (Olmsted’s director at the time, Rev. John Miller, had told me they had one). I popped in one of the bags of microwave popcorn into this ominous-looking Hobart commercial microwave and actuated the large, metal bar that sealed the door shut. Figuring this to be more powerful than the Amana Radar Range, I set it for three minutes of cooking time rather than five or six, and went off to my room to drop off my baggage. I returned to the kitchen a few minutes after the Hobart had finished its programmed work and lifted the door. What was in the middle of the thing was nothing but a pile of ashes. Obviously this was not your “father’s microwave,” as they say. The next day, Rev. Miller showed me the smaller, less lethal microwave in the staff area.

 

The story really has no great purpose in this sermon, other than to point out just how far Yours Truly would have to come if I were to even begin to “master” the art of cooking, even 36 years later. There would certainly be more piles of ash in my culinary journey. ANYWAY, suffice it to say that the global pandemic and its near total shutdown of eating at restaurants forced my wife and I to begin preparing our own meals at home, something we really hadn’t done regularly since our children were still living with us. (Our busy church and work schedules had us eating most of our meals at restaurants.) And because Dara—a dietitian who has worked around food for most of her life—was really tired of cooking, my retirement goal of learning to cook got moved up a couple of years. Unfortunately, the Internet and Dara’s sometimes stretched patience became my teachers, due to the unavailability of cooking classes during COVID-19. 

 

In this instructional vacuum, I’ve attacked cooking more like a chemistry lesson than as a “great chef.” (Many people have suggested I watch the multitude of “great chef” programs on TV to learn, but I have neither the tolerance nor the patience for them—If I were learning to ski, I wouldn’t watch the mogul competition at the Winter Olympics!) Hence, recipes became my friends. 

 

I recently baked my first batch of cookies from scratch using a recipe out of a cookbook that is so old I think it was printed on papyrus. The cookies came out surprisingly good, given I missed an important line in the instructions. I’m hoping they didn’t cause any illness for those who consumed them, as I made them for the Daily Bread program that feeds unsheltered persons on Pittsburgh’s Northside. I ate several of the cookies myself as a testing dummy, and I’m still here.

 

Now, back to the “recipe” Paul gives us for courage…

 

He actually uses the word “boldness” in the Corinthians text, but I think it appropriate to substitute the word “courage,” here. The dictionary defines “courage” as “strength in the face of pain or grief,” and that is what many of us are facing in this worldwide malaise, complicated by pandemics, a lurching economy, political polarization, and of late, a war in Ukraine. We need and seek courage. 

 

Our recipe begins with one part HOPE. Hope is a lot of things. At its simplest, it is a “wish” for something better, or for something we don’t have. As we move on up the biblical understanding of hope, we arrive at “promise.” For the believer, we hope in the promises of God to be present with us during our times of trial, and to—as we said last week—“work all things together for good for those who love God, and who are called according to God’s purpose.” Moving further, we see hope as “assurance”—a well-founded belief that God is “on the case,” and has our best future in mind. “Hope” is a word of VISION, not a roll of the dice “hoping” we win something. God is behind our HOPE, and as the writer of Hebrews states, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…” 

 

My reading group (as well as many others at St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park) just finished reading and discussing the book, The Book of Joy, written to record the myriad insights that came from a five-day, face-to-face meeting between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu (not long before he died of cancer). These to remarkable people live through—and guided their people through—much suffering and long quests for justice. They speak of JOY as almost an inevitable thing in the lives of people who walk through suffering hand-in-hand with the Divine Presence, others whom they love, and just OOZING hope! Hope as an ingredient of Joy is unmistakable, but that is part of a recipe for another time…

 

So, we put in a full measure of HOPE. Next, we add FREEDOM. It’s easy to see how COURAGE has hope as an ingredient, but what of freedom? I have noticed that many recipes have ingredients that don’t seem to make sense to me and my limited knowledge of cooking, so I ask my wife. She explains how something is a “shortening” for this particular item, a “rising agent,” or an ingredient that is necessary to “activate” another ingredient in the recipe. Freedom is all of these to the recipe of COURAGE. But like we don’t use gasoline as a “rising agent” in cooking, neither should we think of “freedom” the way it is often used in our current socio-political situation!

 

If you listen to what many “protesters” say (especially during this awful pandemic) or read posts on Facebook, you will be led to believe that “freedom” means “MY RIGHT” to “do what I please.” (The term “Constitutional right” gets thrown around a lot, but I find that few people have actually READ the Constitution themselves, but are relying on the ignorance of others who are wont to interpret it in this “do what I please” view.) This is not freedom, it is licentiousness, something the scriptures condemn. Requirements to wear masks or to be vaccinated are NOT infringements on freedom when they are for the good of all and for the greater good of the society or the country. Declaring so and protesting such corporate safety measures would be like protesting speed limits on the highways or laws against theft. Freedom in a free society is only “free” if all people purpose to obey laws designed to protect constitutional freedoms such a freedom of religion, speech, or to assemble, while guarding individual freedoms such as ownership of property. Some laws exist to balance individual vs. corporate freedoms. Such is the case of safety regulations—or mask mandates! 

 

For the Christian believer, freedoms are designed to permit us—and to encourage us—to do the RIGHT things. Paramount among our Christian freedom is freedom from sin AND freedom to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” as Jesus taught. We are free to DO GOOD toward others, which is a very Wesleyan concept, for Christians of the Methodist sect. Nazarene Wesleyan scholar, Thomas J. Oord, states:

 

 Many of the most perplexing questions Christians face are at least partially answered by affirming the idea that God empowers creatures by granting freedom to respond. If Christians follow Wesley’s lead on this issue, they will discover conceptual resources for making sense of God’s call in their lives.

 

“Freedom to respond”—to God’s grace in having our sins forgiven, forgiving others for their “trespasses against us,” and freedom to respond to Christ’s teachings—is what freedom means to the Wesleyan Christian. Our freedom is subject to Jesus Christ and the leadings and imparted wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Christians should not go around touting individual “freedoms” when they violate the laws of God or the teachings of Jesus, himself. Our faith leads us to love of neighbor, the poor, and any that our time may see as the “least of these.” We are “freed” to carry out acts of benevolence and works of justice by God first “freeing” us from the law of sin and death, and then empowering us to live “beyond ourselves,” for others. This is the Christian way, and a way written about extensively by late theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in works like Life Together.

 

So, we add a full measure of this transformed understanding of FREEDOM to our recipe for courage.

 

The final ingredient from Paul’s text today is MERCY. Paul reminds us we are “engaged in this work by God’s mercy,” and that we “don’t lose heart.” God’s mercy came to the world in the form of a person—Jesus Christ. In the Christ Event, God offered pardon to us all, wiped our slates free of the penalty of sin, and has empowered us to exercise the “freedom” of the redeemed, reconciled life. God’s mercy overlooks our human failings and jazzes us up with the presence of the Holy Spirit—God’s OWN presence—in the life of every believer. God’s mercy continues to visit us when we screw up, and when we forget God’s favor, focusing selfishly and exclusively on our own desires and erroneously adopted “values” that conflict with the teachings and example of Jesus. We will never NOT need God’s mercy, so if we are to develop courage, how can that be, apart from God’s continuing mercy? 

 

So, we take full measures of HOPE, FREEDOM, and MERCY, and mix well. Mix WELL! I have learned from cooking that sometimes you have to mix the “dry” ingredients well, first. The dry ingredients are just what they sound like: flour, sugar, salt, yeast, baking powder, etc. I use a metal whisk to mix them. They don’t actually “mix” or have any kind of chemical reaction without some liquid to “catalyze” or “activate” them. But they do change, physically. They take on a uniform, powdery consistency, and a perceived color change as the darker-colored powders mix evenly in with the lighter-colored ones. I guess this could be seen as a kind of analog for our human efforts to bring about equality, or to “balance” the communities, schools, and societies in which we live. Diversity, especially racial diversity, may be seen as this “mixing” of the dry ingredients in a food recipe.

 

Things don’t really start to happen, though, until the “wet” ingredients are introduced. Obviously, these may include water, milk, eggs, fruit juices, oils or shortenings—even beers and wines to some recipes. It is then that the individual ingredients begin to lose their separateness and meld into something wholly new. Dough, sauces, or batters are born, with an entirely novel identity. Here, maybe we think of the “wetting” ingredients as being the spiritual elements—the Holy Spirit that moves us beyond our human limitations, the redemptive, transforming presence of Jesus Christ, or even the image of “blood” as a cleansing substance. Once these come into play, true transformation begins. Diversity becomes more than just a “mixing,” but instead a new “people” is born, no longer identified by their previous distinctions:

 

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

 

To this new “sanctified soup” we may add many other parameters or characteristics God “blends” into the emerging “Kingdom” community. Many of us believe this may not be limited to just Christians and Jews, either, but other interfaith groups touched by the Divine.

What results is the “food” of courage. This recipe yields as much boldness as is needed by each of us as Christian disciples and as the gathered, called Community of Faith to carry out the ministry “that we are engaged in,” using Paul’s words. The energy and synergy that comes from this “recipe” overcomes any fear or timidity we may have, providing courage to live life according to the ways of God, to shun the ways of humanity that are counterproductive and even hateful, at times, and to do the work of God in the world. 

 

Apart from these key ingredients and the necessary mixing, preparation, and “baking,” we will never arrive at the courage we need to accomplish these tasks and live these lives, let alone “commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God,” to cite our text today. Is it necessary for us to state that in a tasty recipe, the ingredients must “sacrifice” something of themselves for the good of the finished product? Each brings its “flavor,” but much of their “personal” identity is lost to the greater, combined, and melded “taste” of the whole.

 

Do you have the necessary courage to enter into this “kitchen”? Are you willing to risk some part of you for all others, while holding on to your distinct “flavor” that will savor the mix? If you are not quite there yet, well, take one part HOPE, one part FREEDOM, and one part MERCY, and blend well…Amen!

 

 

  

Saturday, February 19, 2022

For the Love of Good...


 “For the Love of Good…”

 

Genesis 45:3-11, 15
45:3 Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

45:4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.

45:5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.

45:6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest.

45:7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.

45:8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

45:9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.

45:10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have.

45:11 I will provide for you there--since there are five more years of famine to come--so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.'

45:15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

 

Who doesn’t like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”? Of course the story is from the Bible, but the setting in the musical is as profound as it is entertaining! No matter how much imagination I may bring to the story of the sons of Jacob, his “favored son,” Joseph, and his unexpected sojourn in Egypt, I could never have come up with Potiphar as Elvis, or the over-the-top palette of colors displayed in the “Dreamcoat.” 

 

Today’s text could be called “the Big Reveal,” or in current pop culture, “The Masked Singer.” During a time of famine that threatened the land, Joseph’s brothers—the same ones who sold him into slavery—come to beg for food from the Pharoah’s staff, only to be reunited with their brother. It is certainly a story of forgiveness, on Joseph’s part, but that is another sermon for another time. Likewise, the gift of dream interpretation God gave Joseph is worth exploring, for it certainly may be a metaphor of God’s promise of granting wisdom when we pray for it, or what God may reveal in time of need when we trust the Spirit of God. That, too, may wait for another sermon. What grabbed me about this text this week is best summed up in verse 5: And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve lives.

 

Take some time to ponder moments in your life when God took something someone else meant for evil against you, or even when God just took a quite ordinary moment in your life, and transformed it into something good, something positive, or even something that bordered on the miraculous. I’ll bet your personal story contains a few of these gems. Here are a couple of mine.

 

Way back in 1976 or so, I was just getting my career in communications off the ground and still living at home in Oil City. As an enthused, young adult Christian, I was involved in an evening Bible study led by students and young adults that met in the home of a wonderful couple from my home church. They had a vital, “renewed” faith courtesy of a Lay Witness Mission that happened in the church, and pledged to open their beautiful home for Christian “sharing groups” and “Bible studies,” especially for young people. While I was “out and about” on my job, I would often stop by their house to have a cup of coffee with Marian, the wife in this kind couple, and to share God’s blessings and faith stories. She and her husband, Edwin, kind of became “spiritual parents” to the great numbers of youth and young adults who would gather in their home on Monday evenings, and we always enjoyed visiting with them when we had a chance. But this one afternoon, I just happened to stop by when their daughter was home on vacation from her post-college job in Philadelphia. (There’s another whole series of stories here about how the daughter and I grew up in the same church and same youth group, but those stories, too, are for a different sermon.) She joined her mother and I for a cup of coffee, and in the midst of a “catching up” conversation, I just suddenly blurted out, “I have to go to Franklin this afternoon, do you want to ride along?” In the moments after asking this surprising question that just seemed to roll off my lips, I found myself horrified. “Why did I say that?” “Woah, I don’t want her to get the wrong idea here!” “She’s on vacation and wants to spend time with her Mom.” These were just a few of the thoughts that ripped around in my head in the view moments after the inquiry. Of course it should be noted that I had always put their daughter on an extremely high pedestal. She was an inspiring Christian woman, a brilliant person, and quite beautiful, I might add. Then came a surprising response: “Mom and I were going to go shopping, but SURE, I’ll tag along with you.” She’s been tagging along with me for almost 45 years now, and I’ve never gotten over the rush I get when she enters the room. I’ve often thought about that one, simple moment when I made that first, “benign” invitation, and often wonder what might have happened, had I not stopped up to her Mom’s house that day. God can certainly do anything God wills to do, but in this case, I witnessed the hand of God taking an ordinary circumstance and turning it into something life-changing, certainly for me!

 

Several years later, while I was still working in the communications field, coordinating public access television stations in my home county, another “ordinary” incident became a “great reveal” for the next chapter of my life. I was up all night on a Friday, working with a local TV telethon, and planned to sleep in late on Saturday morning. There was a men’s prayer breakfast going on at our church as part of a week-long mission festival, and my wife, Dara, was helping cook and serve the breakfast. My phone rang at a very early time on Saturday, and it was Dara, asking if I could come help serve the breakfast, as a bigger crowd than expected had shown up. Since I would do anything for her, no questions asked, I got dressed and headed immediately for the church. Upon arriving, Dara met me with a deeply apologetic grin on her face: “I’m sorry, honey, but enough volunteers showed up to serve, so since you’re already here, why don’t you just go and grab breakfast with the guys.” So I did. And then, after the meal, the featured speaker began sharing his message, and soon the squirming started. This missionary’s story was so parallel to my own, up until he related that in the midst of HIS career in communications, God spoke to his heart: “Stop what you are doing, get yourself off to seminary, and prepare for the ministry!” His story had me on the edge of my seat, and when he repeated this sentence, I heard a jarring “voice” in my own head saying, “Today, this message is for YOU, Jeff!” At a time and a place where I did not intend to be on that Saturday, God called me into ministry, and again, my life was changed. 

 

The third story that comes to mind is not one of my own, but one I read in the “testimony” submissions of the Guideposts devotional magazine founded by Norman Vincent Peale. The story was submitted by a pastor and counselor (his name escapes me, and my copy of that magazine is lost in my filing system, currently). He had written a couple of books on psychological counseling from a Christian perspective, and had been interviewed on a number of TV stations concerning his work. He was on vacation with his family, at this point, and they had rented an RV and were traveling across the USA. As he related the story, they had pulled into a gas station to fill the RV and purchase some snacks for the road. As he was waiting for his family to return to the RV, a pay phone in a phone booth on the property began to ring. He laughed, remembering how TV sitcoms often parlayed this idea into a humorous story. But the phone just kept ringing and ringing. Then, he heard that “still small voice” in his head say, “Well, ANSWER IT!” So he sheepishly sauntered over to the phone booth and picked up the receiver. “Hello?,” he said, as he answered. The voice on the other end of the call was a young woman, who asked if this was Doctor so-and-so. “Y…E…S…it IS,” he answered, with the combination of mystery and curiosity one can imagine him having, as his name was invoked over a pay phone hundreds of miles from home by an unknown caller. “What can I do for you?” he inquired. The young woman, through a flood of tears, shared how her life had taken a negative turn, she was alone, and was contemplating taking her own life. As she prayed for the courage to dismiss these thoughts, she remembered seeing the pay phone answering doctor on a TV interview, and believed him to be an encouraging, compassionate counselor. As he was being interviewed on the show she was watching—several weeks before her crisis, I would add—they displayed the telephone number of the clinic he operated. She prayed to God to help her remember the number, that she might reach out. As she prayed, she said she had a vision of the number in her head, wrote it down, and made the call. The counselor went straight into his best listening mode and soon had calmed the woman down. He gave her a number of a friend who ran a counseling ministry near where she lived, and prayed with her over the phone. She promised to reach out to the friend, and said she would not hurt herself. As she expressed her gratitude, our pay phone counselor asked her where she got this phone number? She told her “vision” story, to which the counselor said, “Honey, I want you to know just how MUCH God loves you! I’m standing at a pay telephone in a phone booth in Wyoming, and I’m on vacation with my family. Only God knew where I was today, and where I could be reached!” They both ended the call with tears of joy for the goodness of God, and for a life saved. 

 

These stories are in the mold of the wonderful Joseph story today’s text partly relates from the Bible. They are not stories of an intended “evil” against anyone, but they are stories of how God can do life-changing things in the most simple circumstances in which we find ourselves—a simple encounter, an unexpected men’s breakfast meeting, or a ringing pay phone. 

 

Later in Genesis 45 we read: 

 

18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people[b] should be kept alive, as they are today.

 

In this same vein, the Apostle Paul would later write in Romans 8:28: “For God causes all things to work together for GOOD for those who love God, and are called according to God’s purpose.” In a day when so much negativity, polarization, and even hate seems to be all around us, are we not called as Christ-followers to be for the love of GOOD, as well as the love of GOD? Can we experience a rebirth of the belief that God DESIRES to “cause all things to work together for good” in our lives? My reading group joined the people of St. Paul’s UMC in reading and discussing the book, The Book of Joy, about a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu. These two great spiritual leaders could speak of joy and share joyous laughter together, both born out of lives of suffering and exile as they challenged the “powers that be” on their respective continents in the name of love and social justice. Again we see the Joseph model at work!

 

One of the popular descriptive formulas of the Trinitarian Godhead is: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Put them together as our God working in the world and in our lives—even in the most difficult or mundane moments—and a four descriptor emerges: God as TRANSFORMER. As Joseph and his brothers found out, God can turn around sad stories, elevate victims, and even save the perpetrators. 

 

WHAT ARE YOUR STORIES of God walking with you to TRANSFORM your ordinary, unexpected, or even “evil” events into something miraculous? What are YOUR Joseph stories? As Christians, we follow a Savior who turned hate into love, vengeance into reconciliation, and death into life, all for the love of GOOD! Amen.

 

 

Friday, February 11, 2022

Rise

 



Rise

 

1 Corinthians 15:12-20
15:12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

15:13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;

15:14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.

15:15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ--whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.

15:16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.

15:17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

15:18 Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.

15:19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

15:20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

 

I believe…in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit; Born of the Virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate; Was crucified, dead and buried; The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven; And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

 

For those of us who were raised in churches that used more liturgy in worship, the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed was a staple. We said these words over and over: The third day He rose again from the dead. And then later in the creed, we proclaimed to believe in the “resurrection of the body,” meaning we believe that OUR bodies would be “resurrected” someday to “life everlasting.” This famous creed echoes the theology of what the Apostle Paul writes in today’s scripture text. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a BIG DEAL. Paul makes the progression from saying that if CHRIST was not raised, then our faith is futile, we are still in our sins, and have no hope ourselves for an afterlife. Paul says that we are “of all people most to be pitied,” if these things be true. Then he offers the good news: But in fact Christ HAS been raised from the dead!, thus leading the believer to rejoice in the corresponding truth that we are NOT still in our sins, and that our own ”resurrection” will assure us of eternal life. This is good Christian history. This is good Christian liturgy. This is good Christian theology. And for many, this is also vital Christian dogma. But for the purpose of this sermon, let’s assume we don’t get too excited about “resurrection” as an academic or doctrinal idea. What, then, does resurrection mean to us, and why is it important?

 

In Paul’s atonement model, and as adopted by the church early on, as we see from the Apostles’ Creed, there are three vital parts: Christ died; Christ was buried; Christ was raised from the dead. Paul and other biblical writers draw a parallel between sacrifices in the Jewish tradition for the forgiveness of the sins of the people and Christ being “sacrificed” to death on the cross, bearing our sins. The significance of Christ’s burial in the garden tomb seems to serve both as a “waiting time” for his followers to brood over his cryptic statements about “tearing this temple down and rebuilding it in three days,” and his other mysterious references to rising from the dead on the third day. Some will suggest that these three “parts” of the formula are important because the Bible SAYS they are important, and must be true to fulfill biblical prophecies. Others will simply quote Paul—and particularly the verses in today’s lectionary passage—and declare that this is the God-inspired truth, therefore we must just believe it. But let’s set these “because the Bible tells me so” reasons aside for a while so we may ponder the WHY of the resurrection.

 

As we begin this conversation, we must acknowledge that Paul’s parallelism (and that found in the Book of Hebrews) between the Temple sacrifices and Jesus as the supreme and forever sacrifice for the sins of the people breaks down when it comes to the resurrection. The animals sacrificed on the altar of the Temple did not have to be “raised from the dead” to be an efficacious propitiation for sin. So why might the resurrection of Jesus be important in an atonement model of his death? This question may help us get at some of the other, more esoteric ideas about the resurrection.

 

If we set aside the atonement aspect of the Christ Event, we are left with the extraordinary life of the man, Jesus Christ, who congealed many of the best teachings of Torah (welcome the stranger, love your neighbor, minister to the poor and infirmed, visit the widows, orphans, and the incarcerated) and coupled them with powerful parables people would forever remember, and displays or “signs” of God’s healing, liberating presence. What Jesus taught us and modeled for us would be plenty to rank him up there with other great religious and philosophical mystics, and even make him more beloved because he connected so lovingly with the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the children. This is a Jesus we could still fall in love with, worship, and follow, indeed. In fact, many from liberal scholars to persons of other faiths, and even persons who claim no faith in the Divine at all have gladly attached themselves to this Jesus and his story. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that, and I don’t think Paul would, either. Paul would say that this part of the “story” doesn’t go far enough, and in truncating the good news of the Christ Event, it cheapens what God is up to in it. 

 

Today’s text was Paul operating out of his “doctrinal” mode, though, and he cannot leave the Jesus journey with the “Good Jesus” and his teachings, without the other elements he sees as being essential to the redemption of all of humanity, most especially the atoning work he sees in Jesus. Paul, and the church he writes for, believes that the death of Christ on the cross is necessary. There are those who believe that God’s pronouncement of forgiveness upon humanity actually occurred when the Christ was born into the world—In sending Jesus, God was demonstrating God’s desire to forgive our sins and establish a fail-safe and forever connection to humankind, one that could no longer be severed by sin. My brother, Jay, who is also a pastor and a good grassroots theologian, has done some interesting work around re-examining the “sacrifice” of Jesus. Citing other theologians work, and synthesizing some thoughts of his own, Jay points out that the church as often seen Jesus as the “Passover Lamb,” which may be defensible, given what Jesus does at the Last Supper. However, as Jay points out, the Passover lamb was not an ATONING sacrifice. The blood of the Passover lamb was God’s protection over Israel, and ultimately became the “lamb of freedom,” as Egypt’s Pharoah finally set God’s people free. Jay’s point is that the “blood of the lamb” was not for the forgiveness of sin, but the “lamb of liberation,” which goes far, far beyond atonement for sin. I like this idea, and it moves us a bit closer to the answer of “Why the resurrection?”

 

Before we look directly at why the resurrection is important, let’s take a moment to suggest why it is not. While a “parlor trick” like bringing a dead body back to life may have wowed them in Jesus’ day, it hardly stirs a yawn in our time. Every day people are brought back from the dead. Lifeless bodies are pulled from frigid lakes and streams, where the cold protected them from the rapid deterioration of death, and they are revived, many to a full recovery. Automatic Electronic Defibrillators (AEDs) are used in schools, concert halls, churches, and by EMS personnel to revive those whose hearts have stopped, rendering them dead. Why, with the advent of cloning, it may even be possible within our lifetime to “resurrect” a whole person from a sample of their DNA, so how excited should we get over a revived body? Even in Jesus’ day, there were countless shamans, seers, and sages whose claim to fame was that they, too, had come back from the dead. It was a common “endorsement” to their claim to a connection to the Divine. If this was all the church was claiming—that Jesus had been revived from the dead—its story was pretty “off the shelf” and underwhelming. So it is my belief, and the belief of many—including the biblical witness—that much more is going on in the “resurrection” than just that a dead body was revived. 

 

The one thing that probably approaches being a universal fear is the fear of death. Most of us fear at least something about death, whether it is just the unknown surrounding it, the anxiety over when it will overtake us, and, of course, the great mystery as to what happens “on the other side.” It is no wonder that some of the most popular tales told over the centuries were stories of those who flirted with death and yet lived. What—or WHO—did they see in their short-circuited dalliance with death? In fact, we are so fearful of death that we still stigmatize those who have made peace with it, particularly if they are “too young” or “have too much to live for.” What we do around those who die by suicide is even worse. In general, we have made arriving at a “comfort level” with our own death a kind of “sin.”

 

So, let’s put this together. God sends Jesus into the world to announce our forgiveness and teach us how to live as God’s loving community. And then God invokes the “lamb of liberation” to free us from the thing we fear the most—death! Jesus’ death and resurrection happens to remove—once and for all—the “sting” of death, and to institute the invitation to and invocation of eternal life beyond this great gift of earthly life. Paul himself declares Jesus as the “Second Adam,” telling us the “First Adam” fell prey to sin and death, but the “Second Adam” (Christ) brings life to all. In fact the very next verse after verse 20 is: 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ institutes a whole new realm of eternal existence, ever present with God and those who are part of the “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before. The resurrection is even more than just “victory” over death—it smashes any power death ever had, and puts in its place the power of perpetual, joyous life, NOW, and in the life to come! Again, see what Paul writes a few verses later in Chapter 15: 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first human, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first human was from the earth, a being of dust; the second human is from heaven. 48 As was the person of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the person of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the being of dust, we will also bear the image of the being of heaven.

 

Paul likes being cryptic, but I don’t think that is what he is doing here. I believe he is trying to describe in simple words and in linear fashion a profound principle of the liberating act of God in Jesus Christ. The resurrection is NOT a mere revival, but a true “rebirth” of those who experience it (including Jesus) as a “being of heaven.” Note that the resurrected person is NOT just physical or NOT just spiritual, but is raised up like a butterfly exits a cocoon—a transformed being. In the case of the “resurrected” person, this metamorphosis includes with it a timelessness we religiously call “eternal life.” That we believe Jesus Christ is alive and “seated at the right hand of God” is not liturgy, it is the central truth of our faith that brings with it the fact of our own resurrection, freeing us from the “law of sin and death.” 

 

Let me get a little “sciencey” for a moment. The best our greatest minds can tell us about matter is that it is made up of a collection of “energy events” at a subatomic level. Atoms are made up of what we once thought were “particles” (we still call them that because like Paul found out, words are inadequate) are bundles of energy interacting with other bundles of energy, and are all held together into what we call “matter” by incredibly strong nuclear forces, forces which we have learned to unleash, unfortunately, but which we do not understand. Physics talks of the “conservation of energy,” a proven theory that says that energy is never “destroyed.” The energy that makes us up may be that which RISES us up from this existence to that “human of heaven” in the model of the Second Adam, Jesus. Note that I am NOT saying that we are all to be “Jesuses,” but that the resurrection of Jesus was God’s “first act” making possible the ”second act” of allowing all of humanity passage into the same eternal “plane” as Jesus, or that which we call “heaven.” Classical theology calls the resurrected body of Jesus a “glorified” body. This “heaven body” was still a recognizable person, who could touch and be touched, could eat and drink, and yet also shared the transformed nature of now living on a timeless plane of existence. 

 

God has so written this idea of death and resurrection into the fabric of the creation that it is all around us, everywhere you look. The seasons of the year, the sequence from Fall to the new blooms of Spring, the seeds that get “buried” in the earth, seemingly dead, yet “rising up” to bring new life. The whole birthing process of creatures—the sperm “gives its life” to the ovum and a new life begins the process of gestation and birth. Even our best ideas often go through a cycle of birthing, dying, and then rising up. So many great visions have “died on the vine,” only to be resurrected when rebirthed by others when the time is right. The stories of the Bible are RIFE with deaths and resurrections, and it is not until the resurrection phase that life, vitality, and the beloved community of God is birthed and rebirthed. The Greek word for “resurrection” in the Bible is anastasis, which means “rising up.” When we help others “rise up” from whatever illness, crushing defeat or misfortune, or fallen state they may be in, we are living out the principle of resurrection. If we work backwards from the resurrection through all of the stories of Jesus, we will see the resurrection’s power visiting every phase of his life from the prophecies of his coming, to the annunciation of his birth, to has choosing of his disciples. In fact, his choice of disciples from the most common—and maybe vulgar—of humans itself speaks of “rising up!” I can say, as one who felt called of God into the ministry I was blessed to serve throughout my life, I have truly experienced “phase one” of this glorious “rising up.” How exciting it is for ALL of us, no matter WHAT our calling, to be part of the timeless “post-resurrection” community!

 

So, you may ask, if this is REALLY what is going on in the “resurrection,” why doesn’t God give us “proof” of eternal life. In fact, God HAS! The transforming love of Jesus Christ, who lives and continues changing lives and “rising up” people all throughout human history is proof. The church, which tries so hard to screw itself and even kill itself off with scandals, absurdities, schisms, and sometimes just stupidity, still abides because its “engine” is the resurrected Christ, visited to her through God’s Holy Spirit. As a pastor who has numerous times been “in the room where it happened” (a person died), I can say that there are consistent, compassionate, and hopeful evidences of the “crossing over” that have no explanation other than the love and power of God. When Paul says with confidence, “In fact Christ HAS been raised from the dead,” he is empowering us to believe with confidence that we, too, will rise up to the eternal life that God has not only promised, but demonstrated. 

 

So, Dear Ones, may you shed any fear of death you may harbor. May you get with the business of “rising up” (anastasis), and live your life according to the teachings of Jesus, who calls us to offer a loving hand to raise up others, too, on this magnificent journey of life. Grace and peace!

Friday, February 4, 2022

God is God and You're Not!

 


“I’m God and You’re Not”

 

Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13)
6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.

6:2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.

6:3 And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory."

6:4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

6:5 And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

6:6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.

6:7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."

6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"

6:9 And God said, "Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.'

6:10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed."

6:11 Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And God said: "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate;

6:12 until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

6:13 Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled." The holy seed is its stump.

 

Chevy Chase, back in the days when he hosted Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” used to introduce himself thusly: “Good evening, I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not!” There are several times in scripture when God pretty much uses Chevy’s routine to make the scene. One is certainly in the Book of Job, when God speaks from the whirlwind. If that isn’t a “Good evening, I’m God and you are not!” moment, I don’t know what is. Here’s another, although the narrator is the one doing the introduction, proclaiming God to be the one “high and lofty.” 

 

This passage has all kinds of good “biblical” stuff—royal imagery for God, angels, worship liturgy, a call and anointing of a prophet, a promised smiting, if the prophet’s (God’s) warnings are not heeded, and special effects. This passage is the stuff of movies and majesty, if not fear and foolishness. 

 

The angels depicted here may be part of the reason the first things these characters have to say when they show up, “Be not afraid”—they have six wings and pull off a kind of Cirque du Soleil routine with them as they prepare to speak praise about God: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory!” Generally speaking, angels in the Bible are messengers, but in this narrative, one of them even performs the unusual “hot coal” anointing on the budding prophet, Isaiah. This is part of the call story.

 

I like call stories, regardless of where I hear them, but obviously, the Bible is full of them, ranging from God calling Abram to be the father of many nations, to Moses, leading God’s people from Egypt to freedom and toward the Promised Land. There is the “drafted into service” call story of the young shepherd boy, David, who tussles successfully with the Philistine giant, Goliath. In the New Testament, we have the calls of Mary and Elizabeth, the baptism of Jesus, which becomes a kind of call story leading to his ministry years and the cross, the various calls of the disciples, and of course the call of Saul, persecutor of Christians who becomes Paul the Apostle. In my twelve years on the Board of Ordained Ministry, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the call stories of the many candidates for ministry that came before our body. The “strength” or passion of the call story was often a good predictor of how well that pastor would perform in the parish, or in whatever field of ministry they were called. I heard once of a candidate whose call story went something like this: “I tried a couple of other careers, and they didn’t work out, so I thought I’d try this.” I’m guessing that didn’t go well, either, but who knows? Sometimes those who recognize their genuinely recognize and admit their weaknesses and offer God their availability may be in the best position to allow God to be their strength? There’s actually scripture about that (II Corinthians 12:9), and a host of stories about “failures” who are used mightily by God. Even film producer Woody Allen has said, “90% of success is just showing up.” 

 

Bible Scholar J. Clinton McCann, Jr. echoes the question of many other bible interpreters in wondering why Isaiah’s call story comes so late into the book (Chapter 6). His answer is that maybe this ISN’T Isaiah’s “call to be a prophet” story, but a kind of Aldersgate “reawaking” call, in the manner of the Rev. John Wesley. While some continue to believe Wesley’s life-changing experience at a Moravian Bible study on Aldersgate Street (just down the road from St. Paul’s Cathedral) in London on May 24, 1738 was his “conversion,” most of us believe instead that it was the time when “the light went on,” and his faith suddenly made sense. This led to his call to begin the Methodist Societies, which became the nutritious agar out of which was born the Methodist Church. McCann suggests that the young prophet is given a specific assignment to speak to Israel, and then is empowered to deliver the message with the image of the “hot coal from the altar” as the anointing necessary to speak with authority—a kind of ordination, if you will. If McCann is right, and I agree with him, I guess we could say this was Isaiah’s ALTARSgate experience! Sorry…

 

OK, I can’t get out of this without a personal story. Many years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth, I, as a young adult, felt God calling me to give up most of my personal agenda and embark on a certain ministry that would involve relocating to the other side of the country. This “calling” (which was not my call to the ordained ministry, which would not come for many years after) happened at a young adult Bible study in a rural United Methodist Church. When I “heard” this message in my heart, I remember pulling a “Moses,” and telling God I would not have the right words to say, since I hadn’t even finished college, let alone any seminary training. Suddenly, I felt my lips get very hot, almost like they were burning, which was really, REALLY weird. In my “brilliance,” I deduced that maybe this was some kind of a sign that God would provide the words. It wasn’t until about a week later that I came across this Isaiah 6 story in my devotional reading, which at least put some perspective on my experience. Thankfully, I didn’t have to endure the six-winged angels, nor did I take it as a sign of something greater than it was meant to be. But nonetheless, it was an amazing experience, indeed. Of course, for those of you who get tired of my extroverted, excessive verbiage, perhaps you wish I had taken it as a warning instead of an anointing—”Shut up, son, you talk too much!”

For Isaiah, along with the hot lips came an assurance of forgiveness and cleansing of sin. This would have been welcome affirmation for a young prophet living in the days generations before the “free grace” imparted to all of us by Jesus Christ, and it would have been in itself, empowering to him. It’s still true today, that experiencing God’s pardon helps one get over our “natural” feelings of inadequacy stemming from our proclivity to do stupid things, think stupid things, or say stupid things. Remember the first things John Wesley wrote after his historic “Aldersgate Experience?” “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This is almost an exact parallel to verse seven of today’s text! Being redeemed should be an empowering and confidence-building experience!

 

Isaiah had a difficult job to do, after the angels, the calling, and the pyrotechnics. He had to go warn his people that God’s judgment for their disobedience was coming. Prophets usually were not told to deliver an “if-then” message, but to announce what was about to occur because of a protracted period of either disobedience to God or the law, or just plain backsliding from their relationship with God, overall. The “rhythm” of the Book of Isaiah is: 1. you screwed up, and will wind up in exile in Babylon; 2. Here are some things for you to ponder—and repent of—while in exile; and 3. Hallelujah, you GET it, and now will be going “home” to Zion! The latter messages of what we label “Third Isaiah” would be much easier ones to deliver, probably not requiring “coals to lips,” but just a gentle “shushing” finger over the lips to keep the prophet from repeating the infamous “I told you so!” chastisement. 

 

The problem with the prophetic message of Isaiah 6, and even the power of the call story, is that is makes it easy to oversimplify the relationship Israel—and WE—have with God. It is too easy to come to the conclusion that if we “obey” God, God will be good to us, but if we “disobey” God, God will either precipitate, or at least allow, BAD to happen to us. This is a childish view not supported in scripture. The truth is, as with so many things, it’s COMPLICATED! To believe that we know, absolutely, what is the “right” thing to do, especially by just reading scripture, is arrogant. And to believe that by “just doing what the Bible says” will keep us on God’s “good side” is juvenile. If we look to the life, ministry, and redeeming events of Jesus Christ, we see that God’s primary focus is on how we relate to EACH OTHER, first (forgive each other, love your neighbor, “greater love has no one than that they lay down their life for a friend,” etc.), and THEN how we relate to God. Loving others IS loving God is the predominant message of the New Testament, and a careful reading and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible will yield the same message. Just as God wants our “availability” to serve more than our “ability” to do so, so God would rather we put into practice the “love message” of loving others, first. Only when we have gotten that down can we, with integrity, love God. One can stand around all day praising God, singing “hallelujahs,” and reading scripture until blue in the face, but following up this “worship fest” by treating others like jerks blows the whole gig.

 

So, how do we acknowledge that God is God and we are not? By following God’s command to “love one another like I have loved you.” And as redeemed Christians, we should be able to do so without fear of judgment when we slip up. Besides, in all actuality, we judge ourselves by reaping the results of any discord we sow. We may call the resulting difficulty God’s judgment, but it’s our own fault, and a lesson is available to be learned. Jesus said, “what you sow, you will also reap.” Or, as an American preacher by the name of William Watkinson said in 1907, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

 

A new week is ahead, and a new opportunity for you to listen for God’s “refresher” calling on YOUR life! It’s a new week to “feel” the ordaining “hot lips” to be a witness to the love and grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and to put into practice God’s greatest commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you!” And when you are tempted to get angry at someone you encounter who you may feel doesn’t deserve your love, or most certainly not your forgiveness, may you be reminded again that GOD is God, and you’re not! Amen!

 

 

 

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...